college is ending and the real world is closing in
May 5, 2010 11:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to graduate college. I am torn between computer science and the arts. What should I do next?

I am a 20 year old female who is about to graduate with a dual major in Computer Science/Liberal Arts. I honestly don't know where to go from here. I've been doing undergraduate research in a biophysics instrumentation research lab for the past year (and have other research experience under my belt), but I'm not sure if grad school is the route I should take. I tend get incredibly anxious about my abilities and worry that my work is not adequate. Naturally, this makes me panic about the quality of my research and my value to the lab. I don't always feel good about what I'm doing, even if my performance is fine. I've been looking at human-computer interaction programs, but I'm really not sure if I'm ready to go.

I also have other passions and talents. I have a good eye for photography and a good ear for music creation. I do not love mathematics and computer science in the same way that I love photography and music. While I am a very good student, it generally feels like more of a chore. I do enjoy my school work, but when I am creating art I feel alive and whole. I tend to need to force myself to work through my analysis of algorithms homework, but I'll gladly spend three days straight working on a beat or perfecting a photograph in Photoshop. I worry that I feel this way because I am so insecure about my intellectual capabilities.

On paper, every option seems equally good. Two of my professors have strongly encouraged me to consider graduate school, but all of the art professors I've had have given me wonderful critiques. I've spent around the same amount of time volunteering for a radio station as being a math/science tutor. People have started to ask about my music (I have 2 projects going on right now) and I have also been taking quality photos of roller derby girls in my limited free time. I wrote part of a successful scientific computing grant and am working on my 2nd project for my school's yearly science expo. It's impossible for me to zone in on the "right choice". The world seems like it should be my oyster, but I feel frozen. I've missed several radio internship deadlines because of my indecision. Oddly enough, each missed deadline felt like a relief.

My biggest fear is that I'm going to make the wrong decision. I don't know where to go from here and I am terrified that I will waste my youth on the wrong thing. I don't want to be a freelance artist who makes 18k a year, and I don't want to be a 50 year old professor who regrets her career choice. What should I do?
posted by 200burritos to Education (34 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You will indeed make the wrong decision. Lots of them. But that's a good thing. That's how you acquire wisdom and perspective.

Peace be with you. You do not need to be terrified if you embrace the idea that life is messy and that trying and failing are essential to learning. My only regrets are over the things I was too afraid to do.

Maybe I don't understand, but why can you not do all these things? Maybe one pays the bills and the others are passions that round out your life? Maybe you find a synergy that draws from all your talents?

And there is no such thing as "spare time." We all have the same amount and there will be none left over. Might as well fill it up with good stuff like science, art, music, and love. There's never anything good on TV anyway.
posted by cross_impact at 12:19 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Focus on computer science and get a good job. Pursue the arts in your spare time. Buy drinks for all of your artist friends who can't find work.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:25 AM on May 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

but I'm not sure if grad school is the route I should take.

Then don't. Why not try and get a job doing music or art-related programming and see how it pans out?

I worry that I feel this way because I am so insecure about my intellectual capabilities.

You do mention external praise a lot in your question. You might want to work through that before getting roped into a 6 year grad school commitment.
posted by benzenedream at 12:35 AM on May 6, 2010

It is probably advantageous to apply to grad school within a year or two of graduating, since your references will be fresh and you can carry some momentum with you. That said, you can certainly take at least one year between undergrad and grad to try to sort yourself out -- maybe more. Offers of grad school admission can often be deferred, maybe for up to three years.

In other words, if you feel you aren't ready for grad school, don't feel like you have to jump into it now, but do what you can to keep the door open. In a year's time things may be more clear to you.

Moreover, grad school is a good time to sort things out. Depending on what kind of program you get into you will probably be able to do a 2-year Master's (perhaps that's an early exit from a PhD, perhaps it's the plan all along) and you'll quickly find that grad-level research can be very different from undergrad schoolwork. It may feel like less (or more) of a chore. During that time you can try to find an internship which will give you a feel for what kind of work you might do in industry -- a likely career path for you that you seem not to be considering. Alternatively, you could think about getting a job now and planning to stick around for a couple of years. You'll likely have more free time as a 9-to-5'er than you would as a grad student or an undergrad.

(Whatever you do try not to rack up a lot of debt from student loans. If your only option involves $50K a year debt, that WILL shackle you more than any career trajectory could.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:44 AM on May 6, 2010

There are a number of good postgraduate programs around which absolutely welcome people who have strong programming and CS knowledge. Many of them have qualities which are very good at making you a better programmer (and artist) but which are absent from more traditional tCS courses. I would look for courses which:
1. Encourage you to collaborate with other people from different backgrounds.
2. Give you a blank sheet of paper - rather than a brief - for your projects.
3. Cumulate in an exhibition where you are expected to present your work to examiners and to the public.

Jobs for programmers which also allow you to be artisitcally creative are fewer and less well paid than jobs which involve dealing with large and fairly dull corporate applications. Your choice at the end of the course.

You might find you get more out of a postgraduate course after you have had a few years of working however. I know I did.
posted by rongorongo at 12:57 AM on May 6, 2010

"I am so insecure about my intellectual capabilities"

Almost everyone in grad school and early in an academic career feels the same way. Read up on "impostor syndrome."

You sound much better prepared for graduate school and an a research career than 99% of young academics I've met. Being a professor would give you a LOT of flexibility to pursue outside interests like art while paying a LOT better than being a professional artist.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:03 AM on May 6, 2010

I don't think there is a right or wrong choice here. You sound very successful in both areas already (more so than I was at your stage for sure!), and certainly ready for grad school. However, taking the CS option will probably leave more room to maneuver.

There is no reason why you can't indulge in artistic pursuits as a scientist. Several of my scientist friends and acquaintances are very good musicians (some are quite successful), a couple of others are excellent photographers and artists, another makes ceramics. I also know of one person who is very successful both as a scientist (her primary career) and as a novelist. I think it would be much harder to do this the other way around: for example, I don't know of any professional artists/musicians that also dabble in science research. The way I see it, you can get the best of both worlds by taking the CS option.

Finally, it is totally normal to feel unsure about your research/academic capabilities. I still occasionally feel this way and wonder when the "science police" will catch up with me and take me away for being an imposter. You'll find, like me, that you gain confidence as you do more, and get more positive feedback about your work from people that matter.

Whatever you choose, good luck!
posted by jonesor at 1:14 AM on May 6, 2010

Best answer: If you're sure you want to continue with postgraduate education, what about the Masters program at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Centre? Randy Pausch talks about it in his famous 'last lecture'. From his description, it sounds like the perfect place to explore all your talents at once. (He starts talking about the ETC at 45:58 in the video).

But please, don't panic. You don't have to set your future career in stone right now. There are many different paths to a full and happy life, and it's likely that you will take one of them.
posted by embrangled at 2:39 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Being an insecure wreck as a 20-year old is an indicator that you're a 20-year-old I think.. :) Reading your question and everything you'd accomplished I kept thinking you must be much older! You have YEARS of angst ahead of you before you need to worry about irreversibly wrong decisions. A couple of people have mentioned thinking of grad school as a path of exploration rather than as an end in itself, I think this is an excellent approach, especially as there's so much out there that combines the arts and computing.

You know your way around computers, love hard work, and obsessively tweak stuff in Photoshop-- have you thought about the Exciting World of Visual Effects? We have cake!
posted by Erasmouse at 2:43 AM on May 6, 2010

when I am creating art I feel alive and whole

Do that. You may have to pick up something practical and bill-paying on the side to be able to do that, but do that.
posted by zippy at 3:02 AM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do what feels right. CS right now is highly competitive and rapidly changing. Keeping-up is difficult. Creative work is more stable. It likely pays less, but which would you value more, happiness and contentment doing things you enjoy, or burn-out.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 3:40 AM on May 6, 2010

Best answer: I came here to say one specific thing and one general thing.

The specific: Don't go to grad school just because you think you have the skill set for it, or you think it's safer or you "ought" to. I say this as a professor -- in my experience, one of the biggest factors predicting whether a student is successful in academia beyond grad school (or even finishes) is whether they really want to be there. Maybe at some point you'll decide you feel that way, in which case you will certainly still be well-qualified (even moreso than you are now with whatever real-life experience you accumulate in the meantime). But if you don't have a burning passion to study something, and you don't really love the act of studying it, you'll probably be pretty miserable in grad school. It can be a pressure cooker, and sometimes the joy of the subject is the only compensation.

My biggest fear is that I'm going to make the wrong decision. I don't know where to go from here and I am terrified that I will waste my youth on the wrong thing.

The general: I can't say this enough: There are no irrevocable paths. You sound like me, when I was trying to choose where to go for college. I knew it mattered a lot for my future, and there were so many choices to be made and so many ways it could go wrong or right, that it was frankly paralysing. Then I realised -- if I made a choice for a school and it turned out to be the wrong one, I could always transfer. If I made a choice for a place to live and it wasn't what I hoped, I could always move.

Same thing for you: if you decide at this point to follow one path, and after a time you see a better one, you can always take it. The key is just to be aware of those opportunities to grab them while you can, and to realise that whatever path you're currently on has something of value and something you can learn from (even if it's just "I never want to do this again because of x,y,z.") Sounds trite, but as long as you learn as you go, and really experience whatever you try, you will not have "wasted your youth."

So please, take a deep breath, and take some of this pressure off yourself. There is no perfect choice. And there is no choice that you can't recover from if you always remember to listen to yourself and think about what you're doing.
posted by forza at 4:33 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

At 20, you have plenty of time for making false starts, and most things that you're good at and find interesting will allow you to jump back in after a few years of inactivity. There is no wrong choice in your situation, and whatever choice you make is not a lifelong commitment.

It is important, though, that you make a choice, and not let time and inactivity make the choice for you. It's easy to spend years waiting to figure out what you want to do with your life and not getting anywhere.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:39 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you want to feel better about your aptitude and skillset, go work in industry for a few years. The tech sector in a lot of places has recovered decently well, and six months of seeing what most professional coders are like should put your mind at ease. Then you'll be 22 and have a world of options available to you. You'll do fine!
posted by Mayor West at 5:04 AM on May 6, 2010

Came here to add to the chorus of 'you don't have to choose one'. There are indeed a number of graduate programs at art and tech schools that successfully combine both in very interesting ways. Depending where you are the focus can be more on art or more on tech.

But I also came here to join the chorus of taking a couple years to work. I was iffy about grad school when I was a senior, but worked for a couple years and was really excited to go back when I did. If you are wavering, I would argue that it isn't the right time to go.
posted by chiefthe at 5:05 AM on May 6, 2010

When I was 20 I was a double major in computer engineering and string bass performance. Then I switched to music composition and theory, gave up a financially successful career, and became a lot happier.

Someone somewhere once told me that the best way to figure out what you should do when you grow up is to remember what you loved doing when you were ten years old and continue doing that.
posted by billtron at 5:05 AM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't want to be a freelance artist who makes 18k a year, and I don't want to be a 50 year old professor who regrets her career choice. What should I do?

Find a lucrative job in either CS or graphic design, then.

However, right now you have no options. It's too late to apply to most graduate schools for this fall, you say you've missed the deadlines for most radio internships, and really, you should have been applying to jobs for the past month or two. If you continue to sit around and waffle, you have a good chance of ending up living in your parents' basement working retail, no matter how smart or praised you are.

Seriously, get on it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:10 AM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you think you might eventually want to work as a software developer, then no matter what you decide, make sure you continue to work on projects outside of school. It doesn't really make a difference if they are hobby projects, or open source, or whatever, but if you are working on the sorts of things you will eventually do in your career you will be building up the skills you will need to find jobs in the field.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:47 AM on May 6, 2010

Look, you're 20. I know that seems like a big deal now, but the entire 20s are basically there for you to mess them up. I know some people might disagree with me, but unless you really want to retire young or want to get a Nobel by the age of 50 you can waste your entire 20s and still die several decades later an accomplished human being.

You know what is an awesome thing when you're 20, by the way? "Living in your parents' basement working retail". Honestly. If your parents are still willing to support you for a bit, you can save a nice wad of cash and have a lovely "who cares" job that you can devote little psychic energy to while looking for something more fulfilling or spending your time reading and learning new things. You can even do stuff like program in the evenings to keep your computer science knowledge fresh, get involved with Open Source projects, build your own websites and develop either a programming or graphic design portfolio, or both.

It sounds like you push yourself fairly hard, and it sounds like you'd be pretty successful at getting a job. I think what you should do is go ahead and find a job, anything that suits your fancy. If you don't like it, quit it and find another.

Once you find a job you enjoy, that has "legs", keep working there until you feel like you've pretty much maxed out your potential at your current level of knowledge. That is the point you should go on to grad school. Best of all, depending on the job, your work may actually pay for you to go there, or offer at least help with tuition.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:07 AM on May 6, 2010

From a financial point of view, if you get a good CS job and live frugally, you can put tens of thousands into the bank in just a few years. You can do your artistic stuff on the side. Then when/if your dream opportunity comes along, you'll be in a great position to quit the rat race and follow your passions, knowing that you can still support yourself and won't be homeless.
posted by CathyG at 6:15 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been looking at human-computer interaction programs, but I'm really not sure if I'm ready to go.

Don't go yet then! I felt completely lost after I graduated from college in '08 with a degree in philosophy (see, I had it harder than you do!) I worked for a year, and that was enough to help me figure out that I wanted to go back to school for HCI. But there are tons of people in my program who have been out of school 3-5 years. You have plenty of time to figure things out, grad school is not going anywhere.
posted by puffin at 6:18 AM on May 6, 2010

You know what is an awesome thing when you're 20, by the way? "Living in your parents' basement working retail". Honestly.

Having actually done that because I dragged my feet in making any sort of plans before college graduation, I respectfully disagree. I think you're right: it's okay to muck around and make mistakes in your twenties. My point, though, is that making no decisions is making a decision--and one with a lot less potential for fulfillment, learning opportunities, or (once your peers move on with their lives in the months post-college) usually very much fun.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:29 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Definitely take a year off to think about this. Let all of your skills and ideas take a breather---see what it is like to think about these things in a non-academic environment. Do some reading and creating on your own about the parts of CS and the arts that interest you. Even if you aren't considering art for graduate school, work on cohesive and mature portfolio and see where it takes you.

Also, explore the intersections between your two majors! This was the key for me. I studied music composition and mathematics, and like you I was good at math and enjoyed the work to an extent, but always found myself more drawn to the freedom of the arts. I ditched math for my last year in college and took a few courses in visual and performance art. It took awhile for everything to really come together, but now I no longer discern between composition, math, visual art, technology and performance art---it's all part of what I do. Advanced computer programming skills are TREASURED in the art world right now, especially in the more interdisciplinary parts of it. Check out microcontrollers and Max/MSP or Puredata. This kind of tech-art might not be appealing to you, but it is something to consider if you haven't explored it yet.

I'm about to start grad school at the Studio for Interrelated Media at Massart, you might check out this program just to get an idea of the wide range of stuff going on.
posted by supernaturelle at 6:42 AM on May 6, 2010

I do not love mathematics and computer science in the same way that I love photography and music. While I am a very good student, it generally feels like more of a chore.

Just wanted to say that A LOT of people feel this way about music as's not confined to math and computers. I can't even count the number of friends of mine that were music performance/music ed/fine arts majors that changed their major because they hated the fact that the one thing they loved the most was turning into a chore and an assignment for them. If you're unhappy with your choice, that's one thing...but I would advise that you keep your work and your hobbies seperate.
posted by kro at 6:46 AM on May 6, 2010

It sounds like you might be interested in a graduate program that combines technology and the arts? Take a look at ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program) at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts
posted by andrewraff at 7:06 AM on May 6, 2010

Best answer: Yes, you can have both! There are plenty of graduate programs that will give you a chance to combine art, music and computer science. I'm a graduate of Carnegie Mellon and at CMU alone there are great programs in Human-Computer Interaction and Entertainment Technology that will give you a chance to connect your passions with your programming skills. There are lots of interdisciplinary programs all over the world, ones that combine right-brained skills with left-brained skills. Computer Science is beautiful that way, it can be used for almost anything.

Also, the best part is that these programs are by-and-large well funded, desperate for female students, which means that there's a good chance that you'll get your graduate education for free.

But the really, really best part is that there are jobs for graduates from these programs.
posted by Alison at 7:06 AM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do something with CS because A LOT of people love photography and music. In every workplace I've been in, there are at least five people who want to be professional photographers and it's a hardcore semi-professional hobby. We have a neighbor who plays cello as a professional musician (she even went to a conservatory), composes some, plays in a local quintet, and gives private lessons...and sells Avon cosmetics. But my husband says her parents are very prominent in the Richmond area and have a lot of money.

I personally am very passionate about surfing the internet and finding cool new websites. Would I give up my job to do something with that? Hell no. Why? Because a ton of sites exist and I primarily like reading/commenting on them.

Also, beware of cash cow master's programs that look like the "perfect" way to meld your interests.

I think you should read this blog post to possibly better understand your situation and the concept of "passion."
posted by anniecat at 7:40 AM on May 6, 2010

It's a lot easier to give up a career in computers and become an artist than the other way around. This is because artists are mostly judged on their art, while programmers are judged, at least in large part, on their resumes.

And it *is* possible to make the switch. Vienna Teng did it.

Then there are ways to mix art and CS.

Imposter syndrome is no fun -- I get it from time to time, and it makes everything harder. I suggest that you interview at one or more of Google, Microsoft, or Apple. If you get an offer, you know you're probably good. You don't have to take the offer, but you'll have a better idea of where your abilities are.

Also, it is possible to get a job in computers that's 40 hours a week, and make art in your spare time. I used to run a restaurant in my spare time.
posted by novalis_dt at 7:50 AM on May 6, 2010

Oh dearie... you're 20. You have tons and tons of time. (I say this with the 'wisdom' of an 32 year old female CS geek, but one without all the options you have... wow!).

My quick and dirty advice: get a CS job. It might have to be in Quality Assurance, just to get your foot in the door, but a development role is good to. See if you actually enjoy coding it up in the real world before committing to a career of it. It's drastically different than educational CS.

Another thing -- if you have good people skills, there's also the CS project management role. Good managers who understand the technology are in high demand. Unfortunately as a women, sometime you might even be typecast into that career path. (Not always, and not necessarily a bad thing, just an observation). You can work your way up from a coding geek to one relatively quickly if you have talent and that's what you want.

But you're young (really really young... graduating at 20?!!?), so you will make mistakes. Not if -- when. It's okay; the world will not end, your career will not end up in the dumpster, and you'll be ok. When it happens, brush yourself off and try something else. And making 18K, if it's something you love doing, is not the end of the world (at least not while you're young and relatively without responsibilities).

Relax... and enjoy the freedom of youth. Hell, go out and enjoy your youth. That opportunity is the one you will regret missing, I promise.
posted by cgg at 7:52 AM on May 6, 2010

YMMV, but here's my experience: I have 2 undergrad degrees (long story), the first in music and anthro, the 2nd in CS. Fast forward... 13 years since graduating with the 2nd degree. For a few years after school I worked full time CS jobs, and did music on the side. I was never quite happy though, and kept focusing on the music.... a few years ago I built up my music "biz" enough that I was able to quit CS job. Since then I've bounced back and forth between the two worlds, depending on my mood(there was a point a year or so ago where I was just completely burned out booking gigs). And while I'm still working on figuring out the non music job I really love(cue previous metafilter ?'s), I have been able to call my own shots in regards to working part time, which has been huge for me.

My husband and I are in our late 30's. I feel so fortunate I have a skill set that pays well that I can fall back on, especially when I see some of our other musician friends struggle and grow bitter. It means I can be pickier about what opportunities I pursue musically, choosing ones that are fun and musically rewarding, even if they aren't lucrative. And it means that we haven't sacrificed our lifestyle and other interested too much (we're fairly frugal, but we own a home, and I have a piano I like to play, could afford to put out CDs, travel, etc.)

I guess my point is this, you have so many options right now, but if you can get some CS experience now (grad school, job, etc.), while what you learned in school is still fresh, it could help you keep your options open down the road.
posted by snowymorninblues at 9:15 AM on May 6, 2010

interested too much == interests too much, sigh
posted by snowymorninblues at 9:16 AM on May 6, 2010

i'm also of the mind that you can mix these. for reference i'm an artist but a lot of my work time is devoted to taking my designs/illustrations and building them into scalable project engine files for software. i have to use creativity AND cognitive thinking. these jobs are out there. i certainly don't love the math/software part as much as i love the designing/drawing part but hey it's what separates me from those 18k freelance artists and it most certainly gets the bills paid and gives me enough freedom to pursue my various creative projects on the side (including waaaay too many medium format cameras... 120 film is expensive)
posted by raw sugar at 10:30 AM on May 6, 2010

I'd prioritize the CS. Computer stuff is, let's face it, going to be more financially viable than the arts, every time. Art is the easiest and most expendable thing whenever someone's doing budget cuts, and if you have anything other than art to offer to the business world, you're lucky. If you've got it at least as a backup skill, or a way to get a job where you can eat, do it. (I really, really wish I could program, because man, being an artist is a bitch and my day job is a lot less well paying.) If I had the option, I'd do it. Plus there are ways to tie the art and the CS together that could both be interesting and make you money someday.

With regards to grad school, will anywhere give you a free ride? Will getting an advanced degree help or hurt your earning potential? Will you ever be able to pay off the loans with the future jobs you're likely to get? (Pretty much a losing battle for arts there.) And getting into academia these days is a bitch anyway--it sounds like a lot of people, if they are lucky, get 3 adjunct jobs at a time at 3 different colleges and none of them are stable. If you are not passionate about it, it might not be worth it to go in, no matter what your professors say.

Btw, don't even bother with the radio internship. Clearly you DON'T want to do it.

My advice would be to work for a year at whatever the hell job you can get rather than stress out over grad school. If it's a crappy job, you'll learn the value of computer science. If it's in computer science, you'll learn if you can stand it or not. After you've actually worked 8-5 for a living for awhile, you'll know more about how you feel about these things.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:17 PM on May 6, 2010

While people are pointing you toward programs geared towards people that love and can't leave CS, arts, and music, you should consider the MIT Media Lab and its program in Media Arts and Sciences. Lots of people and projects you have heard of came out of the Media Lab, as well as the fundamentals behind different kinds of HCI that were than adopted by big-big companies.

But, I wanted to echo the above comments that you shouldn't feel pressured to go to grad school OMGNOW because it is something you benefit from only when you know why you are going and what you want to do with it. I would find a not-soul-draining CS job to support my arts-life, developing a portfolio and art philosophy outside of work, until I had the right idea to bring them together in grad school or my own business.
posted by whatzit at 10:40 AM on May 10, 2010

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